Native Grasses: Little Bluestem

Whether you’re growing your own “nano-prairie” or just enjoy the soft texture and flowing stems of ornamental grasses, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) deserves a place somewhere in your garden for its fall color, winter interest, and wildlife value. The narrow blades of this native American native grass are an important food plant for tiny butterflies such as grass skippers and wood nymphs, and their abundant seed stems along road sides and in wild areas provide forage for many songbirds through winter.

Although little bluestem is what’s called a “warm season grass”, meaning it’s slow to wake up in spring and begin greening up, this short (1-3′) native grass has impact throughout most the year. As warm temperatures of summer arrive, stiff green blades shoot up into a mass of gently-waving stems which take on increasingly fiery hues as fall approaches….

 

Grow little bluestem for its striking red, russet and burnished tones that develop in the fall

 

The fluffy stems and dried mass of winter foliage stay fairly intact right into the following spring, when you can shear the stems to about 3″ to allow sunlight to warm the soil and encourage new growth. Or not! (If you’re a passive-style wildlife gardener who leaves old stems in place to self-mulch plants, that’s fine too…plants always appreciate a mulch of their foliage!)

Little bluestem’s clumping habitat (as opposed to spreading by roots) makes it suitable for any meadow garden planting with fairly well drained soil and full sun. It’s short stature (less than 3′) and unfussy nature  makes it the perfect plant for a habitat container. During last summer’s eastern US drought, we only watered the container below once or twice, and it never missed a beat. Probably it would have been fine if I hadn’t watered it at all… (shown here in April before new growth begins)

 

Little bluestem in a container

Because they stay short, little bluestem is great for container plantings, especially located in a spot where you can enjoy its shaggy but interesting dried stems right through winter.

 

A large prairie-type bluestem planting is breathtaking. This carefully maintained meadow at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, Monson, Mass is mowed every few years to keep shrubs and tree seedlings from turning it back into a forest:

 

Little bluestem meadow in summer at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in central MA. Later in the fall, this meadow comes alive with color and movement, from the swaying red bluestem to flocks of American goldfinches foraging on seeds...

Little bluestem is easy to grow from seed, and chances are it’s growing on a roadside near you – if you see it, collect a few seeds in the fall and scatter them in your wildlife garden beds, your seedlings will be a locally-adapted “selection” of little bluestem, and should grow well without fertilizers or irrigation.

By the way, for readers in or planning to visit New England – Norcross is a wonderful central MA resource for nature lovers and habitat gardeners – their large wildlife sanctuary is FREE and open to the public all year round, and their many areas of woods, ponds, fields and other managed habitats showcase a variety of southern New England ecosystems and the native plants that will grow there.

 

Ellen Sousa gardens, farms, writes and teaches from Turkey Hill Brook Farm, a small horse farm in the Worcester Hills of central Massachusetts.

Don’t Miss! Ellen Sousa’s Book (click image for more information)

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Little Bluestem is one of my favorite grasses! Retains its great reddish color right through the end of winter. I have to debate whether or not to cut it down in the spring — but always do in the end. It looks good in a more formal garden bed too, although it will reseed gently.

    Really terrific plant!
    Alan @ it’s not work it’s gardening recently posted..New Bamboo

    • says

      It does reseed here and there…when you finally learn to pick them out among the hordes of non-native grasses that pop up in every corner of the landscape, you can weed out the unwanted species and encourage the bluestem….they belong in every natural-style garden! Or, relocate seedlings to a more suitable spot of your choosing :-)

  2. says

    I’m still not very good at id’ing my grasses, but I’m pretty sure I have this species along with several in the Andropogon Genus (which also go by various “bluestem” common names). Have to admit that I love my grasses, even if I don’t know their names.

    Great article…it has me thinking I better start figuring out who’s who in my garden. Your timing of this is perfect…I just found a Florida grasses website yesterday: http://www.floridagrasses.org/ to help me with the id’s
    Loret recently posted..The Awakening – Giant Swallowtail

    • says

      Loret – it has taken me years to develop even a basic ID ability for grasses…after centuries of farming and cultivation in the US, we have a huge legacy of European crop grasses and other introduced grasses that have spread everywhere throughout the landscape. In many cases they are close relatives to native grasses (think phragmites) and are tough to tell apart from the natives. That website you sent is excellent – wish something like that existed for New England! Good luck out there! It’s always easiest to start right in your own garden!

  3. says

    I’d love to make our whole back meadow look like the little bluestem field at Norcross, but there is so much aggressive stuff there already (Queen Anne’s lace and invasive rosas and ragweed and goldenrod). This low, pretty grass is going to have to be an ornamental in my yard instead, or in a container like you show. Very nice!
    Laurrie recently posted..Lynx Rufus

    • says

      hi Laurrie, the meadow at Norcross is most definitely a “created” meadow, not an evolved meadow such as what you have in your “back 4″ :-) …they happen to have a team of paid staff who had to weed out a lot of stuff to get that meadow looking the way it is….so I appreciate that without a paid stuff you might not want to try tackling it! Do you ever mow your meadow? You could use a carefully-timed mow when the Queen Anne’s lace is in bloom to control its re-seeding…depending on the size of the multiflora, mowing might at least slow its spread…good luck, it can be daunting!

  4. says

    I love this grass~Love, love, love it! It’s been a beautiful addition to my garden and looked wonderful all winter. In fact, we’ve just cut it back and placed the stems in a container in the garden. It’s still lovely~perhaps, the nest making birds will carry it off. I am so going to containerize it this spring. gail
    Gail Eichelberger recently posted..Got Wildflowers! Lucky Pollinators!

    • says

      Nice idea Gail to create an early spring container with the dried stems…get ready with your camera…I’m betting the chickadees and sparrows will pick at bits of it!

    • says

      I know you’ll love it! Hopefully you can find local seeds for it? Since you’re in upstate NY you’d be wise to grow a locally-adapted strain of bluestem…

  5. Fred Averill says

    I have a large planting of little bluestem at the University of Virginia. By the end of july it had all flopped over because of the heavy flowers. I had to cut it back to about 18″. Some of the plants were almost smothered. Should I get some buffalo to graze it next year?

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